OSHKOSH, Wisconsin—Capt. Matt Steward belted into the left seat as captain of an Embraer 145 regional jet for the first time just one week before EAA AirVenture 2019 here.

He credits his Young Eagle experience with EAA Chapter 1094 in Sulphur Springs, Texas, as the reason why he has an airline career today. In August 1995, at the age of 8, he took his first flight in a 1991 Wilga PZL-104.

“I remember that flight every day. It was a red, white and black airplane with great visibility. We took off from Runway 18 at Sulphur Springs. When the wheels broke the ground, I knew what I wanted for the rest of my life.”

Steward says he was attracted to aviation since he was a toddler. That casual interest was transformed into focus and fervor in 1995 when his uncle, Brian Steward, introduced him to the Young Eagles program.

After his introductory flight, the fervor became more heated over the next several years as he spent more time with Chapter 1094, learning from EAA members about flying, weather and aircraft maintenance.

In high school he knew he wanted to earn his private pilot certificate, but he and his family could not afford flying lessons. So after graduation, Steward worked at two jobs. One was as an line service tech at the local airport and the other as a County Sheriff’s dispatcher, and he saved enough money for an occasional lesson in an aging Cessna 150.

Steward’s dream nearly evaporated in October 2008. He was nearly electrocuted when he pulled a GPU hot power lead out of a business jet, mistakenly believing the GPU had been switched off.

Undeterred, he resumed flying four months later and eventually received his private pilot license (PPL) four years after his first solo. One he had his ticket, Steward partially paid for aircraft rental and operating expenses by sharing rides with passengers. There were plenty of $100 hamburger rides, fly-ins to EAA events and trips to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in 2012 and 2014.

From there, it was off to Tulsa Community College in Oklahoma for FAA air traffic controller training. His first goal was to become an air traffic controller, but FAA Oklahoma City was not hiring at the time.

That was a hidden blessing. Steward then redirected his efforts toward a career in the cockpit, heading off to airline transport pilot (ATP) flight school in Jacksonville, Florida. He earned his CFI credentials in December 2015 and started to work on his ATP back in Tulsa, paying his way incrementally with his flight instruction earnings in a PA-28 Archer and PA-44 Seminole. To boost his income, he also worked line service and as a nurse tech in a local hospital trauma center in Tulsa.

The year 2016 would be significant. First, he met Diedra, one of the emergency room nurses. They instantly were attracted. In January 2016, Steward logged 1,500 hr. and immediately shot off resumes to a half dozen regional air carriers.

Dating Diedra became more serious, and in July 2016, Steward took her up in a Cessna 172 for a sightseeing flight over Tulsa. Among the landmarks, he wanted to show her the hospital where they both worked. It was hard to find in the darkness, but he spotted the facility and circled it.

Then the entire helipad atop the hospital roof became bright illuminated. “Marry Me” appeared in huge letters, put there by co-workers who were in on the surprise.

Diedra said “Yes!” and they were married in April 2017. A few months later, Diedra told Steward she was pregnant. And then in November 2017, Steward landed a pilot job with a regional carrier based in Dallas. He picked the firm because it offered a $20,000 signing bonus and included a priority career path to American Airlines.

Steward became a father in May 2018 when Diedra gave birth to Logan “Boogie” Steward. Almost from the time Boogie opened his eyes, Steward has immersed the child into aviation with pictures, pajamas and push toys.

Steward’s life seems complete at age 32. He is well on his way to upgrading to an American Airlines Airbus or Boeing aircraft in 2021. He still takes an active interest in Young Eagles and plans an introductory flight for Boogie in the coming years. He even wants to buy the Cessna 150 in which he first learned to fly so he can provide flight training for his son when he is older.

Few pilots are more enthusiastic about the Young Eagles program than Steward.

“Young Eagles changed my life. I wouldn’t have met my wife to be. I wouldn’t have my son. I wouldn’t have my airline career. It all links back to that first flight in Sulphur Springs.”